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Vargas Llosa, Mario 1936–

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Vargas Llosa is a Peruvian novelist, critic, journalist, screenwriter, and essayist. His writing is concerned with the hypocrisy and corruption of Peruvian society and politics. Violence is a recurring motif in his work, which Vargas Llosa believes reflects a society "where the social structures are based entirely on a sort of total injustice that extends to all aspects of life." His fictional works are noted for their structural complexity and innovative presentation of both time sequence and narrative structure. (See also CLC, Vols. 3, 6, 9, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 73-76.)

John M. Kirk

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[The] highlighting of the more "colorful" episodes in Vargas Llosa's novels … has resulted in the impression that the writer's overriding concern is to show merely the sordid and perverse aspects of life in contemporary Peru.

Without any doubt [a] strong—and at times overbearing—interest in the more unusual details of human sexuality is a common ingredient of Vargas Llosa's work, but fortunately, in the last analysis, this represents a relatively insignificant feature of his novels. There are far more important (but less spectacular) qualities in the Peruvian writer's work, and in fact no better compendium of these can be found than Conversation in the Cathedral itself….

Few contemporary Latin American novelists have been as expansive in writing about their personal interpretation of literary and political theory as Vargas Llosa. The essence of this former aspect can be summarized quite simply: the writer is basically a rebel, a man who is unhappy with the world that he sees around him, and who therefore writes in order to make people conscious of the problems facing their society. The corollary of this interpretation deals with the writer's own situation: having already illustrated society's ills it is now time to reveal his own obsessions, or, to use Vargas Llosa's own expression, "to exorcize one's personal devils." (p. 11)

The intention of the novel, he claims, is to reflect faithfully life in the 1950s under Odría's rule: "In this work I am attempting to reflect the social atmosphere of Peru during the eight-year rule of Odría: that mild but incredibly corrupt dictatorship that I experienced at first hand during my college years in Lima, and the mud of which—in one way or another—splattered all of us. But it is not a political novel: rather it is the reflection on many levels (social, human, erotic, racial and political as well) of Peru during this period." It is this blending of isolated incidents with Vargas Llosa's intense personal experiences which continue the importance of the "personal devils," and which, in Conversation in the Cathedral, offers the most harmonious expression to date of fiction and reality in the works of Vargas Llosa.

Unlike all of Vargas Llosa's other novels, which concentrate on one, or at most two, geographical locations, Conversation in the Cathedral now presents a wider, more encompassing view of Peruvian society. As in the majority of his earlier works, Lima is again used as the center of Vargas Llosa's attention, but this time his gaze extends further afield in a determined effort to incorporate as many representative regions of Peru as possible. True to his intention of providing a truly faithful portrayal of life in Peru during the Odría Administration, Vargas Llosa uses scenes set in the sierra and on the coast, in other large cities and in several small towns. (p. 12)

More important in this vast mural of Peruvian society, however, is the fact that the reader now finds a profound investigation of life in the different, and rigidly separated, social strata of Peru. University life at San Marcos is described in great detail, and a thorough account of the upper class social conditions of Miraflores is also provided. At the same time though, and for the first occasion in any of Vargas Llosa's works, the reader now encounters finely-etched portraits of life in several working class areas. Students and assassins, sumptuous haciendas and seedy bars, ministers and prostitutes are all to be found in this complex work. A noteworthy feature of the novel is the lack of Indian protagonists, but this shortcoming is more than compensated for by the vast array of scenes and characters. In Conversation in the Cathedral, then, Vargas Llosa has incorporated many of the scenes found in his other works, but his welcome additions combine to offer a work which far surpasses any other attempt at portraying contemporary Peruvian society, and in Vargas Llosa's case it is to be doubted if he will again produce such an immense variety of social conditions, characters, and geographical locations.

Probably the most noticeable feature of Mario Vargas Llosa's description of Peruvian society is his excellent portrayal of the upper-middle class, the "gente decente" or "decent" people as he calls them, the society which he experienced at firsthand during his youth in Miraflores. By narrating the life of Santiago Zavalita, Vargas Llosa presents his finest portrayal to date of the faults and inspirations (although more often the former) of this elite. Santiago Zavalita (who in many ways resembles Vargas Llosa) tries to break away from the artificiality of this life…. (p. 13)

It must be noted, however, that this work is no mere "thesis novel," designed just to show that these social abuses are restricted solely to the "decent" classes, for Vargas Llosa makes it obvious that these ills permeate all levels of Peruvian society. Admittedly, the Peruvian novelist reveals his deep personal disillusion with life in the Miraflores "jet set," but his purpose is not merely to condemn this particular social stratum, but rather to show that similar levels of corruption and selfishness are found in all levels of the nation's social structure. (p. 14)

It would appear that the central theme of Conversation in the Cathedral is the pitiful state of contemporary society in Peru, for which there is apparently no saving grace. In all of Vargas Llosa's other works one can find explicit, highly critical references to Peru. However, in no other novel of Vargas Llosa does the reader encounter either the quantity or, more important, the ferocity of the attacks on Peru found in Conversation in the Cathedral. In this novel, criticism is found of what Vargas Llosa obviously regards as the essential ingredients of Peruvian society. The Church, for example, although not as great a center of attraction as in The Green House, nevertheless is heavily censured; the ever-important phenomenon of militarism is illustrated by the stranglehold which Odría keeps on Peru; even the code of machismo comes in for heavy criticism. All these aspects of national life, together with the stultifying existence which results from the hopelessly outdated and stratified social structure, are used to show the complete and utter breakdown of all aspirations for a better Peru, a fact underlined at the very beginning of the novel: "Even the rain was screwed-up in this country."… This impression is mercilessly repeated throughout the novel, as Santiago on numerous occasions expands on his view of national sterility: "Whether Peru is governed by dogmatists or by intellectuals is irrelevant—Peru will always be a screwed-up country … It began badly, and will end disastrously"…. The numerous examples of coarse language used to describe the state of Peruvian society indicates the deep frustration which the author feels on considering the reality of Peru. The cynical, but somewhat lighthearted criticism of "The Chiefs" has been replaced here by a deep anguish, aptly expressed by a form of verbal violence not found elsewhere in his work. (pp. 14-15)

A careful study of Vargas Llosa's work reveals how the vague rumblings of discontent visible in his first collection of short stories has now been transformed into a harsh and extremely bitter reflection on Peruvian life and society in general. If the Peruvian writer felt uncertain as to how he should harness his personal discontent in 1959, the same cannot now be said about Conversation in the Cathedral. This novel, then, marks a personal as well as a literary triumph. For the first time in his career he seems fully aware of the gravity of the situation, hence the violent, anguished tone….

[By] means of the ultra-complex structure of his work, the Peruvian writer is in fact attempting the ambitious—and obviously impossible—plan of conveying to the reader all aspects of the reality of this society, of writing the "total novel." (p. 15)

This intention of Vargas Llosa is assisted in Conversation in the Cathedral by all the virtuoso writing techniques encountered in his other works. By means of the dialogue between Ambrosio and Zavalita, which extends throughout the entire novel, Vargas Llosa develops many plots and subplots, all of which are neatly dovetailed around this unusual structure…. In Conversation in the Cathedral, then, all loose threads are developed, all unconnected thoughts, memories and even memories of memories are gently spun together by Vargas Llosa in order to present a truly representative and all-embracing mural of Peruvian reality of the 1950s.

But this process is even more complicated, for these unsolicited memories which continue to exist long after Zavalita or Ambrosio have forgotten about them—and even the central dialogue itself—are both chronologically and spacially separated. Thus, several narrative threads are maintained at the same time, all of which are not necessarily in any given chronological order. It is almost as if the writer had written four or five different narrative threads, developed them in the traditional manner, and then divided them up into many small sections, which he then interpolates. Yet, however complicated this may at first appear, the work undoubtedly acquires greater meaning and dimension, provided that the task of piecing together the jigsaw puzzle of the novel is not too taxing. The reader obviously has to study the text more closely and, at almost any given moment, must be fully conscious of the many different narrative threads, while necessarily having to store memories of future developments in his mind. This role of accomplice of the writer undoubtedly helps the reader to a more profound understanding of the work for, which his necessary cooperation and patience, the mysteries of the novel are soon solved….

This novel of Vargas Llosa is thus both a perfect showcase for all the structural techniques and thematic obsessions found in his other work, as well as being the true culmination of his personal anguish for Peru. He himself has admitted that with this novel he has reached the peak of his creativity, and that following this novel "he will not aspire to such immense literary efforts … he will be more humble." This represents a great loss to Latin-American literature, but is understandable, given the vast undertaking required to produce Conversation in the Cathedral. (p. 16)

Despite the objection of many critics, this novel, far from being a work concerned with the sensational, should in fact be regarded as an important social document. As the Peruvian critic José Miguel Oviedo has so ably pointed out, Conversation in the Cathedral is not an easy or a pleasant book to read—nor is it intended as such: "Rather, it is that specific mature work which novelists sometimes promise themselves: the unpleasant novel which they have composed with anger, with deep-lying truth, and with an unbearable nostalgia. The Odría dictatorship robbed Vargas Llosa of his youth and of his innocence. On the political level it completed the moral destruction which the Leoncio Prado Military College had begun. As a result then, this novel constitutes a tremendous revenge, a masterly revenge." (p. 17)

John M. Kirk, "Mario Vargas Llosa's 'Conversation in the Cathedral'," in The International Fiction Review (© copyright International Fiction Association), Vol. 4, No. 1, January, 1977, pp. 11-17.

Gregory Rabassa

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Vargas Llosa attempts the breakthrough into a new expression that aims to portray or perhaps even to create what he calls "total reality" by means of the "total novel."… Vargas Llosa seems to be struggling toward something new, something more apt as an expression of contemporary Spanish American reality. But the experimentation often seems to be only that, an attempt at the "new," which of course does reflect the Latin American zeitgeist exceedingly well. The problem with his methods is that he is working with elements tried and true handed down by the nineteenth century as daring innovations which, however, have become our regnant canon. We no longer riot over Brahms. (p. 30)

Mario Vargas Llosa has sought out the simultaneity suggested by the space-time continuum in his novel Conversation in The Cathedral. This long book encompasses any number of moments, which the author has daubed for identity through the use of three verbal tenses or times. After a rather banal prologue in present time which fittingly sets the tone for the whole novel, action ultimately moves to the brothel-bar named La Catedral because of the proximity of the episcopal see, although the symbolic possibilities are obvious and legion. It is precisely this beginning which imparts the genius loci of Lima, which cannot help but be affected by the dank and dismal gray cloud cover that so often cloaks the city…. Vargas Llosa sees to it that this atmosphere of gray mediocrity is maintained throughout the book. There is no excitement here; everything is inept, both morally and mentally, from violence and murder on down.

This is the present tense, the time of the beginning and the time of the conversation between Zavalita and Ambrosio as they drink beer and dredge up the past in La Catedral. In most languages including Spanish the present tense suggests immediacy, thus livening up the narration. This is not so in the case of Conversation in The Cathedral; here it serves as little more than an indicator of who is speaking right now, and indeed, in the nonvocal parts of the beginning and end of the novel, its effect is to dampen the action, make it more drab. It is possible that Vargas Llosa has meant to use the tense here as a sort of descriptive device, to show the banality of the present of which he writes; and in a larger sense, as the conversational present is here responsible for all that is retold and recalled from the past, this banality is properly imposed on preterit events as they pass through the alembic of the here and now. Recollection is expressed in the past tense, with the aorist and imperfect aspects serving their normal grammatical functions. Once within past time, further recollection or delving is then put into the pluperfect tense. After the reader has come to the meeting between Zavalita and Ambrosio early in the book, he must be aware of the careful use of tense employed by the author and he must be continuously on the qui vive lest he be plunged like some Wellsian adventurer into a different time warp.

It is difficult to say whether or not Vargas Llosa has been successful in his use of this technique. Perhaps it is too much of a contrivance which only serves to oppilate the narrative flow. It is also possible, however, that this is precisely what the author seeks: a sense of sameness that obtains between time present and time past, both recent and remote. (p. 31)

The abeyance of an expectant tautness in the novel is never resolved. Recognitions are diluted by their placement within the parallel flows of time, and although there are some near misses, there are no really blatant Dickensian epiphanies…. Again one wonders whether or not this plain lack of adventure might not be a deliberate attempt by the author to stress the drabness of it all. If that is so, then Vargas Llosa has succeeded only too well. The novel is much too long, and at times the reader must indeed have a certain Einfühlung with those Peruvians who were suffered to endure General Odría's dictatorship longer than they should have. The failure of what at first blush purports to be an adventurous and inventive style might also be a reflection of the absurdity of expecting permanence from such political structures, so flimsy in spite of their concomitant brutality…. We must always look to the other side of this stylistic aspect of the "absurd," however, and wonder if what we can call Cortazarian intent will serve a writer who is really more at home with Flaubert. It is back to the circle versus the spiral once more. Vargas Llosa's novel is nice and round; it slices well. (pp. 31-2)

The time in this novel is not relative, or at least it is not shown to be so in a cogent way…. There is too much certitude in the use of time here; we receive the technique ex cathedra, even through the nominal coincidence of a local shebeen….

Vargas Llosa was more successful with the impact of parallel structure and connective characters in his earlier novel The Green House. In it we have a displacement in space that serves thereby as a mutual displacement in time, and the woof and the warp of the two "elements" are thus quite congenial. Character is preserved as people change roles and even names with a dislocation in space…. Cause and effect are seen inexorably at work here; the creatures are Darwin's, their variations in nomenclature are only superficially relevant to their being. In The Green House Vargas Llosa is more successful when he leaves things unknown, incomplete. This may be closer to "total reality" than attempts at rounding out characters in order to render the reader omniscient. The godlike reader has to be the most superficial, for he will have to ignore what he cannot know. (p. 32)

In The Green House Vargas Llosa does address himself to this reader in one aspect of the novel, and that is why it is a more "advanced" work than Conversation in The Cathedral. The title of the novel itself is the connective theme that links the primitive world of the jungle to the primal lusts of "civilization" which are enclosed by the green walls of the whorehouse…. The reader is given his opportunity here, then, to create feelings, to impute them or to ignore them. Even before reaching "total reality" (which can only be a vision or a dream), we must first come to that ambiguous or ambivalent reality sought by Machado de Assis and presented to us through his untrustworthy characters.

It is precisely this mystery, this world which is not explained or cannot be, that is missing in Conversation in The Cathedral. There the pieces do fall neatly together at the end, or even sooner if the reader's powers of ratiocination are sufficiently acute. The only question remaining is the "why," the cause again, and this is not the Urfrage of reality, which in its human aspects becomes tabescent in the light of explanation. If the ending of Conversation in The Cathedral is pessimistic in that it predicts more of the same with the grave as goal, The Green House ends on a note which, while similarly unprogressive, at least is an acceptance of mystery, if we will, as theology tells science to leave it to its own devices…. This aspect could have been what attracted Vargas Llosa to a considered and detailed study of the work of García Márquez, and of all of the Peruvian's works, The Green House comes closest to the outlook too vaguely called "magic realism" and epitomized by One Hundred Years of Solitude. The Green House is open-ended; Don Anselmo's gramarye remains unexplained, even though the narrative flow has left it accepted in one way or another. (pp. 32-3)

Those who have read Cortázar's Hopscotch are tempted (if they have learned their lesson well) to take the chunks of narration which are the bricks of The Green House and rearrange them, as Cortázar invites the reader to do with his novel. It can be done with some success, for Vargas Llosa has already made a start in that direction. It can be done because in this novel, unlike the case of his later one, he has not reduced time to a device of measurement or location, a practical tool, but has conjoined it with space, so that the characters carry their space with them too (green jungle/Green House), inseparable from their time, which bears more resemblance here to Proust's Time. More real too is the world we do not see, the one we accept by fiat from custom….

Pantaleón y las visitadoras misses an opportunity to make better use of the cinematographic technique essayed. In this comic rather than humorous book, the author tells the story almost completely by means of dialogue, using the identifying phrases as a kind of stage direction to describe the character's action or attitude. The result is more a dialogued novel like the Celestina or Galdós's Realidad than it is a movie put onto the printed page…. The kaleidoscopic succession that was used by Dos Passos and Joyce and later cultivated in Latin America by Cortázar and Cabrera Infante is not often present in the works of Mario Vargas Llosa, least of all in Pantaleón, seemingly written with the screen in mind. There seems to be a very promising step in this direction with The Green House, but with Conversation in The Cathedral it is as if the author had not realized how close he was to handling the modern view of time, so close to the helter-skelter pace of our customs, and he returned to earlier temporality, taking rhythm for tempo and following its regularity. It is as if there is a drive for neatness, for aliquot parts, not the aliquants that keep Cortázar's work swirling. The characters in The Green House left remainders, those in Conversation in The Cathedral do not and therefore disappear in our imagination. This is in large measure because time is a function in the first novel, while in the second it is a tool, such a treacherous one that we should be careful as to whom we let pick it up. (p. 33)

Gregory Rabassa, "'O Tempora, O Mores': Time, Tense, and Tension in Mario Vargas Llosa," in World Literature Today (copyright 1978 by the University of Oklahoma Press), Vol. 52, No. 1, Winter, 1978, pp. 30-3.

Jerry Bumpus

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 260

In Vargas Llosa's comic novel [Captain Pantoja and the Special Service], Pantoja, captain in the Peruvian army, is sent to the backcountry city of Iquitos to implement a special service for soothing the troops' lust so set to boiling by the jungle heat, spicy foods, and the incredibly beautiful women of Iquitos. With dedication and probity, Pantoja, an officer whom the term "regular army" fits perfectly, sets out to develop a complex and elaborate operation which will provide the men with special service on a regular basis….

Vargas Llosa distances the reader from the characters and their action by telling more than half of the novel through military reports, newspaper items, and radio broadcasts. In the chapters where he uses scenes of dialogue, the author distractingly jolts the reader back and forth between several scenes occurring simultaneously. These devices do not conceal but heighten the fact that the novel's plot is skimpy and the pace slow.

The book's satire of the military's mindless adherence to procedures and the pitiful slaves to which this reduces men is linked with another satiric motif, contrasting the love tied up in crucifixions with the love a woman gives a man, a theme which apparently still needs arguing in Peru….

Captain Pantoja and the Special Service [praises] the strength, courage, and faith of men who are made fools by the fools who command them. Vargas Llosa's execution of this theme is … suavely and pleasantly carried off…. (p. 635)

Jerry Bumpus, "The Good Soldier," in Partisan Review (copyright © 1979 by Partisan Review, Inc.), Vol. XLVI, No. 4, 1979, pp. 634-35.∗

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